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The New-York Historical Society explores fashion, feathers and the rise of animal rights activism
Unidentified French or Swiss artist, Greater Bird-of-Paradise (Paradisaea apoda) skin, ca. 1550. Watercolor, black ink, and gouache, with touches of white lead pigment on ivory paper, laid on paper, formerly laid on an album page. Gift of Nathaniel H. Bishop, 1889.10.2.55.


NEW YORK, NY.- The New-York Historical Society is presenting a special exhibition that melds fashion, activism, and the history of the groundbreaking Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife, on view April 6–July 15, 2018, examines the circumstances that inspired early environmental activists—many of them women and New Yorkers—to champion the protection of endangered birds. The exhibition showcases bird- and plumage-embellished clothing and accessories. It also features original watercolors by John James Audubon of birds endangered before the passage of the statute, models for The Birds of America, from the Museum’s renowned collection. Recordings of bird songs from The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology—together with objects on loan from other institutions, books, ephemera, and photographs—animate the narrative.

Administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 was one of the first federal laws to address the environment, prohibiting the hunting, killing, trading, and shipping of migratory birds. It also regulated the nation’s commercial plume trade, which had decimated many American bird species to the point of near extinction. The exhibition is part of the Year of the Bird, a centennial celebration of the Act organized by National Geographic, the National Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and BirdLife International.

“Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife commemorates the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act by delving into history and examining the economic and social circumstances that inspired the early environmentalists and activists who lobbied for this consequential legislation,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. “As New York was the center of the nation’s feather trade, the exhibition also investigates how the act impacted the city’s feather importers, hat manufacturers, retailers, and fashion consumers—as well as how New York women played an important role in pushing for the legislation.”

Exhibition Highlights
The first gallery of the exhibition, “A Fancy for Feathers,” presents examples of the late 19th- and early 20th-century fashion including feathered hats, boas, fans, aigrettes, jewelry, and clothing. Highlights include a gold and diamond aigrette hair ornament (1894) featuring the wispy feathers of a Snowy or Great Egret, which were scornfully called the “white badge of cruelty” by activists; a muff and tippet accessory set (1880–99) composed of four adult Herring Gulls created during a craze for gulls that nearly drove the sea birds to extinction; a folding brisé fan of swirling white feathers (1910–29); and a pair of earrings inset with hummingbird heads (ca. 1865). Painted miniatures on view from the late 19th and early 20th centuries portray women adorned with bird plumes, such as one professed bird lover, wearing a hat decorated with dyed ostrich feathers while holding an American robin and surrounded by caged birds. Feathers also adorned men’s regalia and hats.

The second gallery, “Activists Take Flight,” introduces several of the activists who pushed for protective legislation. As the center of the nation’s feather and millinery trades, New York played an important role in influencing the Act. New York City activists included George Bird Grinnell, a prominent conservation polymath and protégé of Lucy Bakewell Audubon, who was inspired by her husband to found the first Audubon society in New York in 1886; Mabel Osgood Wright, an influential author and founder of the Birdcraft Museum and Sanctuary in Fairfield, Connecticut; Florence Merriam Bailey, an ornithologist whose bird books became important field guides; and Lilli Lehmann, a German opera singer and animal lover, who campaigned passionately against wearing feathers while in residence with the Metropolitan Opera.

The exhibition concludes with 14 watercolors by Audubon of life-size avian species saved by these conservation efforts, drawn from New-York Historical’s unparalleled collection, the largest repository of Auduboniana in the world, which includes the 435 watercolor models created by the artist-naturalist for the world-renowned, double-elephant-folio edition of The Birds of America (1827–38) engraved by Robert Havell Jr. Highlights on view include the Roseate Spoonbill, whose pink wings and feathers were used in fans sold in the Florida tourist trade, and the Great Egret, one of the chief victims of turn-of-the century plume hunters that became the symbol of the Audubon Society.





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